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Zurich airport expansion runs into resistance from residents

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People living near Zurich's Kloten airport are up in arms over an expansion project, which is expected to lead to a massive increase in flight traffic.

This content was published on July 18, 2000 - 11:12

Local people around Kloten say the its extension has more to do with increasing shareholder value than equipping Zurich with an adequate airport.

The management argues that the expansion of Zurich's newly privatised Kloten airport is crucial for its future. They say that, by 2010, Kloten expects to be handling up to 34 million passengers a year - a 50 per cent increase on today's figure.

The expansion programme will create a huge new terminal and shopping centre, which will be linked by a new rail link. The airport's existing infrastructure is to be modernised, too.

The project was given the go-ahead in a cantonal referendum five years ago, but opposition has increased since construction got underway and residents started to realise the extent of the expansion.

Building work has led to the temporary closure of one of Kloten's runways and the re-routing of air traffic over heavily populated areas south of the airport. Residents in places like Opfikon, Wallisellen and Wangen-Brütisellen fear that this is a taste of things to come over the next decade.

But Kloten's management insists that the airport must grow. "The expansion is extremely important because the airport was built for just 18 million passengers and this year we will cater for 23 million," says Josef Felder, the CEO of Unique Zurich Airport. "We must be able to provide the proper services for passengers."

His words are echoed by the SAirGroup, owners of Swissair whose planes are based at Kloten. "The expansion is very important to bring our home base back up to standards," says SAirGroup spokesman, Davor Frank.

But local residents are becoming increasingly concerned about the size of the airport and the impact it will have on the neighbouring environment. They claim the extension is being carried out purely in the name of shareholder value because much of the increase in volume will come from transfer passengers.

They say the effect on local living standards should outweigh the interests of the airport's investors.

The question of noise pollution at night is particularly sensitive. Local residents are calling for a seven-hour night-time ban on air traffic rather than the current five hours from midnight to five in the morning.

But Felder says a seven-hour embargo just isn't feasible for an international hub. "We have intercontinental flights to South America. That means aircraft have to take off late at night to arrive in South America in the early morning. We live in a time when people have demands about mobility so a complete ban at night is not realistic."

Under Swiss law, there is no strict limit for aviation noise. Instead, the environmental protection law sets levels, which it considers reasonable.

If planes breach those levels the airport authorities are required to pay local residents' sound-proofing costs as well as compensation to householders whose property may be devalued. The intention is to increase the cost of noise to the point where it makes little economic sense to break the levels.

But some argue that the government has colluded with the industry in setting levels too high. "A typical limit for a residential area is now 67 decibels," says Robert Hofmann, a retired acoustician and former member of the expert committee that advised the federal government on aviation noise. "This is in contrast to the recommendation of the expert committee that advised 60 decibels."

The logarithmic character of the decibel scale means that a difference of seven units corresponds to a five-fold increase in traffic.

The row surrounding Zurich airport and its expansion has recently been compounded by Germany's decision to rescind an agreement dating from the mid-1980s.

The agreement set the number of flights able to fly over southern Germany to 80,000. Over the years that number has increased to 140,000 and Berlin is demanding cuts, fewer evening flights and none at the weekend.

This could be more bad news for the people in canton Zurich. "Even an optimist will have to assume that some 50,000 or more landings will have to be managed by approaching Zurich from the south," says Robert Hofmann. "This will certainly cause more noise in regions that are protected up to now and I think the reaction of the population will be rather rude."

Airport CEO, Felder, is putting his faith in a new agreement but doesn't rule out the need for a complete re-think. "We expect the two governments to find a solution. There are alternative flight plans but they would affect Swiss towns and villages much more."

Felder says he's sympathetic to local concerns but insists that Zurich has to be allowed to compete with other European airports. And he says that people living near the airport must put up with the disadvantages as well as reaping the benefits to the local economy and infrastructure.

It isn't an argument that cuts much ice with local people like Christophe Bless, a spokesman for the community of Wangen-Brütisellen. "Sure we profit from the airport and we do expect some disadvantages. We don't expect the calm of an Alp but for a tolerable solution that doesn't risk people's health."

by Michael Hollingdale

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